Is ethnic cleansing coming to India?
Seventy-one years after the partition of India and 47 years after the former East Pakistan became Bangladesh, one of the legacies of the messy division of the sub-continent has returned to haunt the country. The current crisis over the publication of a National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the Indian state of Assam has cast doubt on the citizenship – and the future – of some four million people and threatens to undermine peace in the region.
The departing British partitioned India in 1947 on the basis of religion: they created a Muslim state, Pakistan, out of Muslim-majority provinces in the west and east of India. In 1971, after a brutal and genocidal campaign by the Pakistani army drove some ten million refugees to India, East Pakistan seceded to form Bangladesh.
Once India had defeated Pakistan in that war, most of the refugees returned to the newly independent Bangladesh, though some remained in India, where they assimilated seamlessly. Over the next few years, they were joined by millions of other migrants from Bangladesh, who were fleeing economic hardship and land scarcity in an overcrowded country.
The "Assam Agitation"
While migrants to the Indian state of West Bengal assimilated easily among their fellow Bengalis, those who settled in the north-eastern state of Assam faced greater challenges, owing to linguistic, cultural and religious differences with the majority of their new neighbours. By the 1980s, Assamese students – angry at the prospect of losing land and job opportunities – were staging mass protests, which occasionally erupted into violence.
Assam became all but ungovernable. A pair of savage massacres of Bengali Muslim migrant groups – one of which killed some 3,000 in the Assamese village of Nellie and other villages in 1983 – exposed the depth of the crisis. Finally, in 1985, then-Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi concluded an "Assam Accord", which brought an end to the "Assam Agitation" by pledging to deport all those who had migrated illegally to the region from Bangladesh after 1971.
This was easier said than done. Over the years, an assortment of tribunals failed to identify more than a few thousand of the estimated 20 million illegal migrants. Yet no concrete action was taken to fulfil the guarantees of the Assam Accord. Instead, the problem was left on the back burner for decades.
Then, in 2014, the hard-line Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was elected and the process was revived. When the main phase of the court-directed and government-supported exercise was concluded, the second draft of the NRC – a list of people who could prove that they had antecedents in Assam before 1971 – was published in late July.